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Oaxaca

Published
May 24, 2024
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FROM San Cristóbal de Las Casas, I caught a long bus ride to Oaxaca City, the capital of the State of Oaxaca, which mostly lies to the west of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

Oaxaca and Chiapas. Map data ©2024 Google. North is at the top for this map and the others in the current post.

Oaxaca City is more formally known as Oaxaca de Juárez, after the famous nineteenth-century indigenous president of Mexico Benito Juárez, who came from the Oaxaca countryside and moved to live in Oaxaca City when he was twelve.

Oaxaca City is another touristy spot, with lots of public art and pedestrian areas.

On the other hand, it too has a history of issues and unrest. Here is a photo of a truck delivering potable (drinkable) water. Does Oaxaca have the same water supply problems as San Cristóbal, I wonder?

There was political graffiti on the walls.

The next poster, from a local anarchist-cum-Communist group called Sol Rojo (‘red sun’) says ‘don’t vote unless you want a politician to win’ or words to that effect, and that workers and poor people should just get organised instead.

I took photos of stick-on prints associated with a local art shop or collective, Xochipilli Arte. Xochipilli, ‘prince of flowers’, is the Aztec god of summer, art, games, dance, flowers, pleasure, love, dancing, feasting, and song.

Xochipilli, or Xōchipilli, is often represented as sitting crosslegged while apparently stoned on psychedelic mushrooms and his name can also be translated as ‘flower child’, so I think this might have been one of the inspirations for the early hippies.

The restaurant chain McDonalds has been banned for more than twenty years from downtown Oaxaca City’s 500-year-old plaza, the Zócalo, more formally the Plaza de la Constitución, which is at the centre of a World Heritage downtown area.

The world-famous Oaxacan artist Francisco Toledo helped to organise the opposition, shortly after the turn of the millenium.

I went on a free walking tour which introduced me to some of the vast amount of street art to be seen in Oaxaca City. There are many online articles and videos about Oaxaca street art, such as this one.

Here is one that caught my eye. It was possibly inspired by the legend of Camazotz, the bat god, who served the lords of the underworld.

Like other old colonial cities in Mexico, Oaxaca also has wonderful churches. One of most famous is the Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán, which has the same name as the one I visited in San Cristóbal.

Templo means ‘church’, somewhere that is one or two rungs down from a cathedral. But like many Mexican templos, Oaxaca’s Santo Domingo is considerably more flash than what would be regarded as a church in much of the rest of Christendom, as you will see in a moment.

The Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán

Ceiling and altarpiece of the Templo de Santo Domingo

The Templo de Santo Domingo and its plaza lie a few blocks north of the Zócalo, where the Metropolitan Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption is located.

The Templo is regarded as the most magnificent inside, but the Cathedral has the more impressive exterior.

Between the Cathedral and the Templo runs a pedestrianised street, the Calle Macedonio Alcalá. Here are three photos taken along the famous pedestrian street.

The Zócalo

The Zócalo, with Our Lady of the Assumption in the background

Here is the very fancy exterior of the Cathedral:

And here is a view of a religious façade in the vicinity of Santo Domingo.

I made a video of a hotel restaurant courtyard, the Zócalo, food markets, and the Templo.

Many colonial buildings in Mexico and Central America are made out of volcanic tuff rock, known locally as cantera. In Oaxaca, this kind of rock — consolidated volcanic ash, somewhat porous, light in weight and easily carved — tends to be green.

A Cantera Building in Oaxaca

The fact that the local cantera is easily carved has also lent itself to the massively ornate carving typical of Mexican and Central American churches and cathedrals.

A lot of the other buildings in Oaxaca City, as elsewhere in Mexico and Central America, are brightly painted.

Many of the older buildings are also not more than one or two storeys high, even downtown. If they are taller than that, the walls are normally made very thick. This was the traditional response to the fact that the region is very prone to earthquakes. There are no less than five tectonic plates under Mexico and its coastal waters: Oaxaca, on the North American Plate, is affected by the subduction of the Cocos Plate just offshore in the Pacific.

Downtown Oaxaca is one of 35 Mexican World Heritage Sites: more than any other country in the Americas and a national tally surpassed only by Italy, China, France, Germany, Spain, and India. Mexico even has more World Heritage Sites than the United Kingdom, and ten more than the rich but comparatively uncultured United States.

I saw a sign which said that work had been suspended on a construction job because of violation of heritage-protection requirements.

I am not sure what this pensive papiermâché princess symbolised, but she also caught my eye.

This kind of folk art is called cartonería, and it is very popular in Mexico: the piñata is one of the purposes to which cartoneria is put, and the same technique is also used to craft fantastic animals called alebrijes. Other effigies are stuffed with fireworks and set alight: I hope that was not to be her fate.

You could see the sunset from downtown.

And I also took a picture of a quaintly deteriorated wall.

Because of its mountainous terrain and many valleys, Oaxaca has many small ethnic groups: 16 indigenous ethnic groups and 263 languages, I was told. The Aztecs invaded Oaxaca in the 1400s, but I was told that their rule only lasted 50 years.

I stayed at the Andaina Hostel, which was pretty central. In addition to the Cathedral, the Templo, the Zócalo and the Calle Macedonio Alcalá, the inner city also has a botanical garden and a famous theatre. Plus, lots of alleys, shops, markets, cafés, and so on. It really is magnificent.

Two Netflix shows have made Oaxaca popular with foreigners: Sunday to Fill and Street Food Latin America. These made Oaxaca a favourite among tourists and attractive to remote workers as well. The locals have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand there is a degree of overtourism, but on the other hand, this remote mountain city is quite economically reliant on tourism as well.

I took photos of street food and a whole lot of things in the market.

‘Nieves’ means ices, that is to say, ice cream and sherbet. Surprisingly enough for the tropics, Nieves Oaxaqueñas (Oaxacan ices) are a local tradition, as the mountains nearby are high enough to collect ice and snow, brought down to the city in the days before refrigeration. The nieves are made with exotic local ingredients including the mezcal, or agave (not to be confused with mescaline, nor fiery mezcal liquor, though that would probably be an interesting flavour as well).

And here is another street scene, with more buildings made from the local cantera stone. One of the businesses is a quesería, or cheese shop, which in Mexico and Central America often seems to be symbolised by a black and white cow.

I saw an ad for a café and bar that had an amazing range of cocktails.

And another ad for Mexican wrestling, with masks!

I walked around for three hours but it got up to 37 degrees C elsius— too hot — even though Oaxaca City is another mountain town, around 1,500 metres above sea level.

One thing I do regret is not getting out into the countryside. One of the attractions of rural Oaxaca is Hierve el Agua (‘the water boils’), a set of bubbling springs and travertine terraces about 70 km outside Oaxaca City. I saw this hand-drawn map on the wall in a hostel, actually the one I stayed at back in San Cristóbal de Las Casas.

On the other hand, given the levels of crime and violence in Mexico, it is important to stick to where the tourists go, for safety’s sake.

Outside of the cities, the mountain states of Oaxaca and Chiapas are especially badly affected by backwardness (including underage marriages and lack of female education), crime, and unrest, such as the Zapatista insurgency in Chiapas.

Back in Chiapas, between Agua Azul and San Cristóbal, the colectivo van I was on went through mountain areas where I noticed that there was very little electricity.

Across the whole region, climate change has also made it harder to grow maize, with the result that farmers are forced into growing the sorts of plans that can be made into illegal drugs. For the first time, perhaps, tortillas are no longer always made from traditional corn (and as such, no longer gluten-free, for those who otherwise expect them to be).

These difficulties are probably among the reasons for the Interoceanic Corridor of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, which will bring more wealth and development to Oaxaca and Chiapas, as well as the states of Veracruz and Tabasco at the Caribbean end.

It is also one of the reasons for the Tren Maya, the Mayan Train, in the Yucatán peninsula as well. While I was there, I learned that the Mexican Army is administering the Tren Maya. There is an interesting article about that fact by a journalist named Huizar Flores, here. It seems that the government of President López (‘AMLO’) sees putting the train under the control of the army is a good way of maintaining national control of the southern part of the country.

As AMLO cannot run again for President in the elections scheduled for 2024, his party is proposing a new presidential candidate for this year’s elections, Claudia Scheinborn.

Scheinborn has promised every Mexican student a tablet. But if the schools haven’t got electricity and if there is child labour —I saw five-year-olds working in the square in San Cristóbal — this might not work in practice. Hopefully, though, ever-cheaper solar panels will also start to make a difference in the more inaccessible areas, including most of Chiapas and Oaxaca outside of the cities.

Next: Mexico City!

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